News Column

Sun & Sand seeks to bolster film industry in Mississippi: Some progress has been made but more plans are in the works

November 10, 2013


Nov. 10--When the second annual Sun & Sand Mississippi Music & Film Festival opens Wednesday, its creators hope its imprint will be felt not just within the state but around the region, nation, even world.

"For 8 percent of the attendees last year, it was their first time in Mississippi," said Wes Benton. He and his brother Bobby E. Benton are cofounders of Sun & Sand.

Eric Thompson, one of the producers of the "Twilight" movies and other films such as "Agent Cody Banks" and "Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief," is returning to Sun & Sand to participate in panel discussions. One of the benefits for him in 2012 was in meeting others in the industry and discussing business.

"We had done some deals that were still pending, and we have some other deals this year," he said about the benefits of his trip to the Coast in 2012. "That, plus sweet tea and barbecue."

It's been a busy year for the Los Angeles-based Thompson, who was flying to China for a project before returning for Sun & Sand.

Bill Webb manages the Gulf Coast office for the Mississippi Film Office. He's excited about "two big 18-wheelers G. Smith Motorsports out of Louisiana is bringing" to a space near Mary Mahoney's Seafood Restaurant as part of the festival. The company supplies high-end cars and custom motorcycles for the film industry, some of which they'll bring for the ex

hibit. Two of the bikes were built for Sylvester Stallone and Nicolas Cage. The Louisiana company's interest in promoting at Sun & Sand is an example of expanding regionally.

Webb recently has been working with the Discovery Channel, which has been scouting locations for upcoming episodes of one of its reality programs.

Mississippi connections

Sun & Sand's "big film" screenings this year all have Mississippi connections. "As I Lay Dying" was filmed in the state; "Category 5" was shot on the Coast; "Big Sur" has a producer from Mississippi, Orian Williams; and scenes from "Rumors of War" were shot in the state.

"Last year's Sun & Sand, to me, was the most valuable development festival we've had," Mississippi Film Office Director Ward Emling said in a phone interview.

The Mississippi Film Office is now in its 40th year. It might seem Mississippi is seeing a surge of attention, with recent wide-release films such as "The Help," but Emling said the state has gotten spates of lavish Hollywood love over the past few decades, along with the occasional casual date.

"The year 'O Brother, Where Are Thou?' was made (released in 2000), there were two others that bookended it, 'I'll Fly Away' and 'The Rising Place,'" Emling said. "The year we had 'A Time to Kill,' there was also 'The Chamber' and 'Ghosts of Mississippi.'"

Most recently, actor James Franco is tackling the difficult-to-film stories of William Faulkner, first with "As I Lay Dying." It will be screened at Sun & Sand at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Saenger Theatre in Biloxi. Franco was director and one of the stars of the film.

Coming soon

"Get On Up," a Universal biopic about soul man James Brown, is produced by Tate Taylor of "The Help" fame and is being shot in Natchez. It stars Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Chadwick Boseman.

"It's being shot in Natchez as we speak," Emling said Friday.

As for Franco, he is revisiting Faulkner, this time with "The Sound and the Fury."

"He's been in Carrollton and coming back after the first of the year. James Franco is very committed to the Faulkner canon, as it were," Emling said. "Did we know he would be back for 'The Sound and the Fury'? No, but he is a fan of Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and others."

The concentration of Mississippi talent in "As I Lay Dying" is a happy point for Emling.

"What makes us so proud is that so many Mississippians are in it. You know, over half of the speaking cast is from Mississippi -- local actors," he said.

Bringing in more productions

Three elements are essential for bringing the film industry into an area, Emling said: Crew, infrastructure and incentives. Some aspects of infrastructure are well covered, he said. "For most productions, you can find an empty building for a set," he said, and the stage at Mississippi Film Studios in Canton offers another option. "The Coast is full of available space."

Incentives have been bolstered to make Mississippi a more attractive location. Salary and internal caps have been raised, and productions are eligible for a 5 percent cash rebate on payroll paid to honorably discharged U.S. military veterans whose wages are subject to Mississippi income taxes. Thank Sun & Sand for that, Emling said.

"That came directly out of last year's Sun & Sand," he said. "A veteran came up to me afterwards and asked about providing incentives based on hiring veterans."

Mississippi's incentives now are competitive with other states', Bobby Benton said.

"Dollar for dollar, we're on par with any other in the industry," he said.

Planning ahead

Building a local or statewide workforce to attract the film industry is one of Emling's and the Film Office's most pressing goals.

"In the future, we need to work on workforce development. We need to train crew," he said. "Today, you can never have enough crew."

Mississippi has the workforce to handle smaller, independent films, he said.

"And we love our independent films that are coming here," Emling said. "But larger films need larger crews. All the incentives are very close now among states. The difference, the greatest difference, is crew, depth of crew."

"We know a crew base is nomadic. That's how the film industry is. We're being focused on being able to create work anywhere in the state," Emling said. "We can create work in 82 counties, in any corner of the state."

It was through a Mississippi film that Emling's own career began.

"I got my first opportunity to be in this industry my freshman year in college," he said. "A production of 'Huckleberry Finn' came to Natchez for filming in 1973."


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